Saturday, December 20, 2014

German trends in anti-Russian thought

I've been reading more of the coverage in the German media on the tensions with Russia.

Before discussing that more specifically, I'll mention a few points that to me should be obvious. But apparently not to everyone.

  • Russia considers several neighboring countries as part its sphere of influence: Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia.
  • The NATO countries are not going to war over any of those countries.
  • Recognizing the latter fact is not a normative judgment of Russia's claims of influence over those countries. Russia's annexation of Crimea was clearly done outside international law. That Crimea had a referendum on secession from Ukraine did not obligate Russia to accept its annexation.
  • Russia has a distinct military advantage in Ukraine in comparison any local forces that NATO could sponsor or with which it could ally.
  • Ukraine's strategic value for the West is minimal, including the naval bases in Crimea, while the Crimean bases have a critical strategic function for Russia.
  • Putin is running an authoritarian regime with democratic trappings that evidently are not entirely fictive. He is also promoting Russian nationalism in a systematic way. After the spectacular failure of the extreme neoliberal experiment in post-Soviet, post-Communist Russia, which saw general living standards decline at the same time a few oligarchs accumulated extreme personal wealth, Putin rejected aspects of neoliberal policies, particularly with state control of the oil and gas industry. The latter fact alone means that the advocates of the neoliberal outlook, aka, the Washington Consensus, do not look at Putin's model favorably.
  • Speaking of which, unlike the Soviet Union, today's Russia is a petrostate which is also an important geopolitical player. That status is captured in Krugman's designation of it as "Venezuela-with-nukes". Being a petrostate brings particular difficulties and opportunities, and Russia is feeling the difficulties very strongly now. It also makes Russia's economic model one with limited general appeal in the world. You can't be a petrostate if you don't have lots of oil. And if you do, aspiring to be a petrostate very heavily dependent on oil exports would be a dubious goal.
  • International relations is about just that, relationships across international borders. Both internal imperatives and the actions of other countries shape policymakers foreign policy decisions.
  • As the old saying has it, the only legitimate aim of war is to produce a better peace. American policymakers and legislators and media commentators should be taking full account of how our various American adventures in "regime change" have come up short in producing a better peace. Very dramatically so in Iraq.
  • And the final one of these observations: yes, Virginia, there are warmongers in America. Some of them, like Bill Kristol and various other neoconservatives, have made careers of it. And there are armaments firms that make good profits on war and rumors of war. For most everyone else, war is a bad thing. But the fact that some people make big bucks off war makes advocacy for war obscenely respectable, especially in the US.

Paul Krugman looks at the Russian economz in Putin’s Bubble Bursts New York Times 12/18/2014:

The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures, including a huge rise in interest rates and pressure on private companies to stop holding dollars, have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.

The proximate cause of Russia’s difficulties is, of course, the global plunge in oil prices, which, in turn, reflects factors — growing production from shale, weakening demand from China and other economies — that have nothing to do with Mr. Putin. And this was bound to inflict serious damage on an economy that, as I said, doesn’t have much besides oil that the rest of the world wants; the sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine conflict have added to the damage. [my emphasis]
And he gives this description of Russia's current economic/social system:

Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.
Robert Parry harshes on Krugman over this column in Krugman Joins the Anti-Putin Pack Consortium News 12/19/2014.

I'll let readers judge for themselves how justified Parry's criticism of Krugman's particular column may be. But he does raise an interesting point, that hawkish conservatives praise Putin's toughness as a way of painting Obama as a wimp by contrast. But that doesn't mean they are taking Putin as some kind of model. What Parry doesn't mention there is that there is a subset of American conservatives who do admire Putin for his posturing as the leader of a re-Christianizing Russia and his hostility gays and lesbians.

One recent German article by Katja Gloger, "Der Preis der Freiheit" Stern print edition 11.12.2014, presents Russia oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a great liberal hope (liberal in the political and free-market sense of the word) for Russia. When you get to page 5 of the Khodorkovsky booster article, something appears there to be some actual journalism that slipped in. Khodorkovsky, we learn, was a financial backer of Boris Yeltsin's 1996 successful re-election campaign. After which Yeltsin arranged for Khodorkovsky and a handful of his fellow oligarchs-to-be to acquire huge portions of large firms in "questionable auctions." That put Khodorkovsky majority control of Yukos, the country's second-largest oil company. He reportedly became the richest person in Russia.

Gloger describes his rise to dominance of Yukos this way:

Es war ein gigantischer Raubzug im Namen von Demokratie und freier Marktwirtschaft. Damals rissen sich Männer wie Chodorkowskij ein ganzes Land unter den Nagel.

[It was a gigantic raid in the name of democracy and the free-market economy. At the time, men like Khodorkovsky hogged the limelight of an entire country.]
She also reports that Khodorkovsky describes himself as a "nationalist" and that he "wrestles with values like tolerance and equal rights." He also disapproves of homosexuality and holds to so-called traditional values of what women ought to be able to do in their lives. She writes that she was irritated by Khodorkovsky's "unwavering conservatism."

Otherwise, the article portrays the exiled oligarch as a kind of free-market Lenin, living in Zurich and plotting the overthrow of the new Czar, Vladimir Putin. (See also: Neil Buckley, Mikhail Khodorkovsky offers himself as Russia’s ‘crisis manager’ Financial Times 12/19/2014.

But if this guy is one of the West's best hopes for an alternative to Putin, it would be prudent to be very cautious in seeking "regime change" in Venezuela-with-nukes.

None of the above means that his conviction for corruption was achieved completely on the up-and-up. (Tom Parfitt, WikiLeaks: rule of law in Mikhail Khodorkovsky trial merely 'gloss' The Guardian 12/27/2010)

Prudence is not on the menu for Romain Leick in his article, "Europa darf nicht blinzeln" Der Spiegel print edition 51/2014 (15.12.2014). This piece really strikes me as though the writer picked through several bits of stock Cold War propaganda and pieced this together using "Russia" instead of "the Soviet Union." I don't mean he's plagiarizing, rather that he's suffering from lac post-k of imagination and maybe nostalgia for the Good Ole Days. The basic conceit of the article is that not much has changed since the 19th century when czarist Russia stood as the ultimate enforcer of conservative/royalist government in Europe against democratic revolutions.

He presents quotes and historical references to illustrate the unexceptional point that democrats in Europe thought that the Russian Empire sucked. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, the "July revolution" of 1830 in France, the Polish uprising of 1830, the Hamburger Schloss movment, the Paulskirche Parliament, Victor Hugo, Alexis de Tocqueville, Friedrich Nietzsche, even Bruno Bauer (!) make an appearance.

This is all propaganda, not serious historical analysis. He uses these examples to paint a picture of Russia as the enemy of democracy and Western civilization for at least a couple of centuries. Using 19th century imagery to make this case has the advantage of referring to events that are not necessarily well-known to present-day Europeans. It also avoids having to deal with explaning that particularly ill-fated obsession of onetime German Chancellor Adolf Hitler to put an end to the Russian menace.

His propagandist twist is especially apparent in the way he characterizes the three positions he sees in German opinion toward Russia: the sensible Putin-resisters, with whom he clearly aligns himself and which he says value freedom; the Putin-Versteher, literally those who understand Putin, who he notes are really Putin sympathizers and he says value reaction (as in "reactionary"); and, the Putin concilators, who he says value appeasement. He gives them the "polemic" names, respectively: Cold Warriors, Realpolitiker and those driven by worry.

The second group seems to bother him the most, identifying as he does with the Cold Warrior group, in which he includes Angela Merkel. The third group must appear to him as wimps whose views are scarcely worth considering. He derides the Realpolitiker as being willing to throw third countries under the bus.

Other arguments he makes are mainly interesting for his lack of concern for coherency. In a piece dedicated to the idea that present-day Europeans should regard Russia as threatening as 19th-century European democrats did, he mocks the idea that Putin would actually fear western Europe. Actually, you don't have to go back to the 1800s to find events that might lead Russian leaders to be leery of Western countries. He gets in a dismissive dig at the German Left Party. Because they haven't joined the New Cold War chorus, he says they have "been pushed to the side of extreme European Right." This is just silly on his part.

He does have a policy suggestion, though: take Ukraine into the European Union right away, even though it doesn't meet the admission conditions. Apparently just to escalate the confrontation with Russia.

This doesn't strike me as a very good plan.

Part of the crisis that led to the overthrow of Ukraine's elected if authoritarian-leaning government earlier this year involved the draconian austerity measures the EU was requiring of Ukraine as part of the process of qualifying for admission. The EU's glowing faith in such policies burns brightly, despite years of failure in the eurozone. With the current Ukrainian government, the path to EU membership chugs forward along with the accompanying austerity policies. It's hard to see how austerity policies in the present moment will help the current Ukrainian government maintain public support in the conflict with separatists and Russia.

Anatol Lieven earlier this month had some worthwhile cautions on Ukraine, How can the West solve its Ukraine problem? BBC News 12/04/2014:

Russia is suffering badly as a result of Western economic sanctions - but Ukraine's situation is far worse, with a predicted fall in GDP of 7% this year.

If this decline continues, the Ukrainian state will face collapse, ...

In their zeal to denounce Russia for putting pressure on Ukraine over gas supplies, Western commentators usually neglected to mention that, through cheap gas and lenient payment terms, Russia was in fact subsidising the Ukrainian economy to the tune of several billion dollars each year - many times the total of Western aid during this period.

This allowed the same commentators not to address the obvious question of whether Western states would be willing to pay these billions in order to take Ukraine out of Russia's sphere of influence and into that of the West.

Western commentators were not wrong to portray Russia as supporting a deeply corrupt and semi-authoritarian system of government in Ukraine - but they too often forgot to mention that trade with Russia has also been responsible for preserving much of the Ukrainian economy.
David Stern also reports for BBC News that while Russian propaganda exaggerates the role of far-right, fascist-type groups in the new Ukrainian government, their role is real and a real problem (Ukraine underplays role of far right in conflict 12/13/2014):

But Ukrainian officials and many in the media err to the other extreme. They claim that Ukrainian politics are completely fascist-free. This, too, is plain wrong.

As a result, the question of the presence of the far-right in Ukraine remains a highly sensitive issue, one which top officials and the media shy away from. No-one wants to provide fuel to the Russian propaganda machine. ...

This hyper-sensitivity and stonewalling were on full display after President Petro Poroshenko presented a Ukrainian passport to someone who, according to human rights activists, is a "Belarusian neo-Nazi".

The Ukrainian leader handed out medals on 5 December to fighters who had tenaciously defended the main airport in the eastern region of Donetsk from being taken over by Russian-backed separatists.

Among the recipients was Serhiy Korotkykh, a Belarusian national, to whom Mr Poroshenko awarded Ukrainian citizenship, praising his "courageous and selfless service".

The president's website showed a photo of Mr Poroshenko patting the shoulder of the Belarusian, who was clad in military fatigues.

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